Samples of the Organic produce grown by Scott Chen [Chen Xiangyang]

Apart from the fact they taste amazing! The examples in the above photo go a long way to answering the above question. They also include (to name but a few); tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, peas, eggplant, maize [sweetcorn] or leafy crops like cabbage, broccoli, spinach, lettuce, asparagus and beetroot. Fruit; apples, cherry, strawberries, peaches, dates, pears and plums. The reassuring fact about these and other fruits and veg is they’re grown with 100% natural nutrients, not soil that has been sprayed with chemicals, widely proven to negatively impact ourselves and our environment. They also do not erode the quality and lifespan of the soil in which they’re grown. You may be thinking that in terms of organic produce this is nothing new.

However, let’s reluctantly step away from those amazing looking fruit and veg for a moment and take a toilet break. Not literally, but to briefly touch on the environmental benefits, particularly for saving precious water, of waterless WC’s. A subject that’s been close to the heart of the Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation for some years now. The tie in? I’m guessing you’ve all been to a public WC either in a store, workplace, school, shopping centre, stadium, petrol station, park, hotels or restaurant. If you’ve ‘gotta pee’ then fortunately for men, there are urinals where they can stand and pee. Less fortunately for women, the only option is toilets (cubicles) where invariably there’s a queue to go – something that still needs addressing and we discussed in a previous article.

Potential. To continue our story, let’s introduce you to a successful family-owned company called Urimat a leading manufacturer of waterless urinals and other environmentally friendly products in the sanitary industry, providing odour free, self-cleaning urinals that most importantly save literally 1000s of litres of water. If you’re a man you’ve probably already used one without even noticing the difference, although the ‘hidden benefits’ are exceptional. Things get a bit more tricky and less easy to resolve when installing ‘waterless’ toilets (sit & go). Without going into too much detail it’s because of no.2s, aesthetics and the ability to separate no.’s 1 and 2 so to speak. But what’s all this potty talk got to do with that delicious fruit & veg you may ask?

The answer’s coming shortly and it may surprise you. Although many of you may have read about this before let’s hope we can shine a new light on the subject. On this particular topic, our minds are programmed to react to certain information by association rather than by the information itself. Let’s do our best to overcome that with the ‘good news’ followed by the quite honestly, ‘not so bad news’.

Perception. Nowadays, we are all aware that water and organic nutrients are both valuable and becoming (relatively) scarce. For agriculture and horticulture water is essential, and tbe spraying or use of chemicals isn’t ideal as they damage the environment, as well as wildlife, bees etc. i.e. they mess up the ecosystem. The earth’s soil is also being stripped of its vital nutrients. Plant-based diets (e.g. vegan and vegetarian) are on the increase, while for people in many parts of the world they are key to survival. It’s already widely known that manure and compost help the organic growth of fruit and vegetable crops. Given a choice, would you prefer to buy your groceries knowing they were a) organically grown, or b) grown using chemicals? All of the fruit, veg and crops mentioned above were grown using a natural resource following good agricultural practices. Just like those familiar bags of manure and compost you may pick up at the garden centre. The above fruit and veg aren’t going to cost you more at the shops either and, in fact, often may be less expensive, grow better and taste better than their chemically assisted equivalents. Thinking on a more global scale… natural fertilisers can also far better enable less fortunate communities a) to grow crops, b) save water, and c) improve their lives and land. Sound like good news to you so far?

Fresh Lemon & Water

Possibilities. Imagine that wonderful detox for cleansing the liver by mixing (diluting) a few drops of lemon with a glass of water. The lemon retains all of the healthy benefits but diluting it makes a greater quantity that’s easier to drink and absorb. With that in mind, you may be aware that our urine is 95% water, packed full of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus which similarly, when diluted, can provide the nutrients plants need to thrive and are the main ingredients in most common mineral fertilisers. Add the fact that there’s understandably a steady supply of this ‘human’ plant food. Then, last but not least, that when diluted by approx. 10:1 [10 parts water] or the nutrients extracted, or if mixed with ash (e.g. wood/bamboo) it has proven to work remarkably well as mineral fertiliser. Albeit we’d need to collect a lot of pee to meet the supply and demand to reach the volume of  natural mineral fertiliser farming requires. As an example, an adult on a typical Western diet pees out about 500 litres a year (three baths full). With all of this in mind, the idea of using filtered and diluted urine itself shouldn’t sound too gross, when at the moment the fact is, ‘we’re just p’ing it away’. Therefore using urine rather than it going to waste and vs chemicals surely isn’t such a bad idea after all.

Organic Garden and Picking Red Tomatoes from the Plants. The Concept of Health.

Never say Never. Hopefully, this illustrates how the benefits are unquestionably positive. The challenges though are different for different parts of the world, cultures and conditions.  Closer to home considerations are the logistics and practicality of collecting/storing the pee and then turning it into usable fertiliser. This could be more easily achieved in larger public toilets as we mentioned at the beginning, and further illustrated below at the Heineken Music Hall. Presently, in terms of bringing about change for families at home the toilets would require different plumbing, but also adoption may be slowed because many people don’t want a toilet that might look strange. That said, the taboo of using bidets to ‘wash your bits’ outside of countries like Japan (Toto & Lixil) and China is a toilet taboo that’s now constantly being broken by inspirational companies such as Tushy making them so easily accessible and user friendly – so never say never.

Proof Positive. As Urimat, who we introduced earlier, clearly illustrated recently with a project at the Heineken Music Hall. Waterless urinals were installed at AFAS Live to collect all urine from male concert-goers and transport it to a treatment plant in Amsterdam. The phosphate was extracted from the urine and converted into struvite, a nutrient-rich agricultural fertiliser. An initiative that provided a relatively simple and incredibly efficient method for reclaiming phosphate. As global phosphate deposits are gradually being depleted, recycling efforts such as these will prove increasingly important in the years to come. What should be borne in mind is not only the potential for use as a natural fertiliser, the cost savings and how much energy could be saved in most countries sewage treatment works is equally substantial, but also relieving pressure on our overworked environment.

Waterless Urinals & Separating Toilets. The far greater challenge, or opportunity at this time by nature of its potential positive impact, is for the 2billion+ people without access to water or basic sanitation in the rural areas of developing countries, parts of South America, China, India and Africa for example. There’s a huge effort being made on ways to provide clean water, improve hygiene, bolster food production and save lives with better sanitation. This involves education, funding, people on the ground, innovators and suppliers. Check out Unicef as a leading source of information on the topic of sanitation,  or The World Toilet Organisation. However, among the list of top innovators/suppliers both at home and overseas are those like Urimat (urinals) and a ‘separating toilet‘ manufacturer called Separett. Whilst Urimat deals with no.1s Separett, founded in 1976, produce toilets that enable the separation of no.1s and no.2s albeit everyone needs to ‘take a seat’ to make this work. In terms of peripheral benefits, specifically for the developing countries are that the urine can be separated and used, it’s saving water and enabling the opportunity to improve the land and therefore better feed these communities. The other thing about Urimat is that there’s a media panel on top of the urinal that is used commercially. I believe this could equally be used to promote safety messages, good hygiene or information to educate and aid local communities. When caring about improving quality of life and/or ‘reduce-reuse-recycle’ those most impacted have quite different perspectives if they live in poorer communities.

Scott Chen [left] and colleague taking a quick break from work [photo credit Chen Xiangyang]

Chen Xiangyang. Take the remarkable work, dedication and determination of individuals such as Chen Xiangyang and his team where, within his local community in China, he’s helping to prove that the use of pee for producing food potentially has a great future and can be scaled up (btw, those are his fruit & veg in the photo under title). This is also happening in varying degrees in other countries incl., Finland, Denmark, France and The Netherland. Extensive research in the US in January 2020 by The University of Michigan established that recycled and aged human urine can be used as a fertiliser with low risks of transferring antibiotic-resistant DNA to the environment. The healthier you are, the healthier the urine. But what’s important about the above research is the reassurance from them looking at the different scenarios and giving pee the (pea) green light.

Innovation & Implementation. At the top end of the financial spectrum The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided a grant of $3million back in 2010 to a project concerning using urine as commercial fertiliser and have subsequently committed $200m to reinvent the toilet for a better world. Highlighted at the recent Reinvent the Toilet Expo in Beijing 2018 where they showcased HTClean Helbling, a toilet separator system without water connection for in-home applications. To further show how the potential to progress this work is getting greater traction and attention, early last year a start-up company called Toopi Organics raised €1m funding for their urine-based bio-fertilisers business dedicated to boosting plant development and growth.

All of these projects and more put the ‘P’ back into Progress!

Food for Thought. Looking back  at articles from 10 years ago discussing the use of urine in agriculture, the probability of it being used as natural fertiliser seemed, to say the least and excusing the pun, difficult for anyone to swallow. I suspect that 10 years from now people probably won’t even think twice and may even insist that the organic fruit and veg we buy comes from a source we know particularly well. In doing so we’ll also be helping the world to become a better place and saving natural resources, which we now know are needed more than ever. We’d love to hear your comments or for more information click on the links in the above article.

E&OE